The Dell Inspiron Mini 12 is a bit confused. It packs an Intel Atom processor, which makes it a netbook. But it also has a 12-inch screen, which exceeds our definition of what a netbook can be. On one hand it's a natural evolution of the genre in an ever growing screen size arms race, topping the 10-inchers like a razor company adding another blade. On the other, the Inspiron Mini 12 reaches a size and pricepoint that makes it comparable to far more capable systems from Dell in the same pricerange.
But rather than focus on philosophy, I'll say that the Inspiron Mini 12 feels better than any netbook I've used to date...even if it cheated a bit in the process.
The build of the Mini 12 is excellent. Even with the extended battery, it feels light and easy to toss around. But it's more than the weight that makes it so comfortable to carry. Its bottom has a sandpapery texture, which grips a hand with confidence.
You'll also notice that the side profile is tapered along the bottom edges. I don't know that it makes any difference in how the computer actually rests on a table, but it looks nice enough.
The Mini 12's keyboard is still not full-sized, but it's adequate to feel comfortable and satisfyingly clicky. Meanwhile, the trackpad does leave something to be desired. The texture is simply off to me, simultaneously smooth and bumpy, it almost feels like a skin rash. The right and left mouse buttons below tend to recess when pressed more than any laptop I've ever used. It's and off-putting sensation at first, but I grew to appreciate the mechanical feel.
As for the screen, it's a luxury to use. The experience is completely different than an 8.9-inch display that you find in most standard netbooks nowadays (including Dell's own Mini 9). There's decent colour, solid contrast, and sharp 1280X800 resolution...but just moderate brightness. The max setting was just adequately bright, which considering the fact that LCDs fade with time, is something to keep in mind—especially if you like to fry your eyes like I do.
The biggest surprise of the testing had to be how cool the system ran. The bottom didn't heat my lap at all, feeling only lukewarm to the touch. I can only assume that the larger case mixed with a low wattage processor dissipates heat very well. However the engineering worked out, I'll take it.
But if there was one thing I would change, it would be the charging and power light. It sits on the hinge in a prominent position that you can see even when closed, but it's far too dim, and it's viewable from a very limited range of angles. Put it this way, for the first day I had the system, I thought Dell had omitted this light altogether.
Ultimately though, it's just a nice looking machine that feels great to put yours hands on, a far cry from the humble original Eee and something you'll be proud to pull out at board meetings and pretentious coffee shops alike.
So here's the rub: While I love the Dell design, the hardware/software combination has slowed the Mini 12 to barely usable levels. The model I tested was the $US550 base system with a 1.33GHz Atom, 1GB of RAM and 40GB hard drive. That system should be alright for XP (though we'd love to see a 2GB RAM upgrade option), but it's just not enough to power Vista. And you can only buy the system with Vista.
The system crawls with constant multi-second stalls, and effective multitasking is pretty much impossible. Sadly, there's not much more to say on the topic. Simple mental math tells us that this system shouldn't be running Vista as it skirts the minimum requirements of Home Basic, and our real world testing shows us the same thing. Of course, Vista alone doesn't mean you should pass over the Mini 12. Just expect to reinstall the OS with the purchase and come to terms with the fact that your paying licensing rights for an OS that you won't use.
I tested the battery life through MPEG4 video playback with the default processing settings and the screen at max brightness (max, to me, is the ideal viewing brightness).
Base 3-cell Battery - 1 hour, 20 minutes
Extended 6-cell battery - 4 hours, 2 minutes
At a glance, this 12-inch Dell system looks to about as power efficient as the 10-inch MSI Wind, though it loses about 20 minutes on the 3-cell battery (we're guessing through a combination of more computational rigorous testing methods and a larger screen). Keep in mind that if you expect to hang out around a plug, the AC adaptor is quite light, lacking any big power brick to speak of.
Back to Square One
Without opening the Dell Inspiron Mini 12 box, I would have expected exactly what I encountered—a solidly built system that shouldn't be running Vista. But even loaded with XP, and even in the $US600 configuration that we'd recommend (1.6GHz Atom, 60GB hard drive, 1GB RAM and 6-cell battery), the system still begs the question of value. A slightly smaller, equally powered MSI Wind will run you $US350. And you can get a slightly bigger Core2Duo Dell laptop for $US600 easy.
It's true. From a performance standpoint alone, there's almost no question that the Dell Mini 12 isn't "worth it." But if you don't want to squint at a screen yet you still want a system that breaks the 1.3kg barrier, then it's hard not to be a little infatuated with the Mini 12. Just rip Vista off that thing as quickly as possible. [Dell]